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Saturday 30 March 2013

Easter Eigg

One of the oldest folk on the Isle of Eigg at the time that Calum Maclean was collecting material there in 1946 was Donald MacGuire, then aged eighty, and staying in Cleadale. The following short anecdote was collected on the 2nd of August 1946:
Dia Dòmhnaich Càisge, bhiodh iad a’ falbh a’ dèanadh Càisge a-mach a’s gach àite. Cha robh duine a’ fanail a-staigh ach a' falbh a-mach a’s gach àite, a-mach air na monaidhean is a dh’ionnsaigh a’ chladaich. Bhiodh iad a’ toirst uibhean is a chuile seòrsa biadh a b’ urrainn daibh fhaighinn a-mach leotha. Dhèanadh iad teine is bhruicheadh iad na h-uibhean. Ma dh’fhaoite an corr uibhean a dh’fhàgadh iad, gur e dalladh air a chéile a dhèanadh iad. Bhiodh iad anamoch a tighinn dachaidh. Bhiodh cuid dhe na balaich a’ cur a falach nan dusan ubh colla-diag na fichead latha ro’n am. Mu mhiadhain latha a thòrradh iad a-mach. Sin obair eile a bhiodh aca ma Chàisg a’ falbh a choimhead na gréine ag éirigh. Bha iad ag ràdha gu bheil a’ ghrian a’ toirst trì leumannan aiste leis an toileachas, ’s e sin a’ latha a dh’ éirich ar Slànaighear ó na mairbh, agus tha a’ ghrian a’ toirst tri leumannan aiste leis an toileachas an latha sin.
 And the translation goes something like this:
On Easter Sunday, they used to celebrate Easter in each place. No one stayed in as they would all go out to the hills or to the shore. They used to take eggs and all kinds of food they could find out with them. They would make a fire and they would boil the eggs. Perhaps some of the eggs would left to one side and they would throw them at one another. They would get home late. Some of the lads would hide a dozen eggs a fortnight or even twenty days before then. Around midday they would go and dig them up. Another thing that they did at Easter was to go and see the sun rise. They say that the sun leaps three times with joy as this was the day our Saviour rose from the dead and so the sun leaps three times for joy on that day.

NFC 1027: 319–20; Courtesy of the National Folklore Collection / Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann, University College Dublin.

Isle of Eigg. Licensed for use under Creative Commons.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

Another Wee Drappie, Big Donald

Whisky and songs not to mention stories have been popular in Gaelic tradition for many centuries. Such is the very strong and resonant connection of whisky with the Highlands and Islands of Scotland that it is easy to forget that until the seventeenth century the most popular drink, especially amongst the nobility, was Spanish or French wine which was imported in huge quantities. Whisky is now a global phenomenon and its ever-increasing market place share reflects its popularity furth of Scotland. 
The following amusing anecdote was collected by Calum Maclean from the recitation of John MacDonald of Highbridge on the 10th of January, 1951. The most interesting and let’s face it amusing part of the story is how the protagonist interprets the bird song which matches his own wishes exactly. Onomatopoeic elements in Gaelic stories are not that common but this one is as good an example as any:
Bha duine ann a seo agus bha e gu math trom air mac na braiche. Ach thuirt e ris fhéi’ gu robh e a’ dol a sgur dheth agus thug e bóidean do’n bhean gu sguireadh e dheth.
“Agus an t-aon dòigh a nì mi: théid mi do’n taigh-òsta,” thuirt e, “agus gheibh mi botul uisge-bheatha. Agus bidh e a staigh ’s an taigh agus cha téid boinne ás. Agus ’s e sin an dòigh a bheir mi na bóidean nach gabh mi e.”
Agus ’s ann mar seo a bha. Bha e a’ tighinn air adhart agus am botul uisge-bheatha aige. Agus chuala e smeòrach a’ cur dhith:
“Dileag bheag, a Dhòmhnaill Mhóir. Dileag bheag, a Dhòmhnaill Mhóir.”
“Ma-tà, cha chreid mi nach gabh mi do chomhairle,” thuirt e.
’S e seo a rinn e.
Thug e an corcas ás a’ bhotul agus ghabh e steall dheth. Choisich e air adhart.
Thuirt i:
“Dileag eile, dileag eile, dileag eile,” thuirt i.
“An-dà, ghabhaidh mi do chomhairle, a ghalad,” thuirt e.
An uair seo bha am botul a’ dol a sìos gu math is chuir e ’na phòca e is dh’fhalbh e.
Chuala e smeòrach air gheug a’ cur dhith:
“Gabh tuillidh. Gabh tuillidh. Gabh tuillidh.”
Ghabh e e. Bha e ’ga chur ri cheann agus e ’ga ghabhail gu gasda ’n uair a chuala e:
“Sgob ás e. Sgob ás e. Sgob ás e.”
Thog e ás a chuile boinne a bh’ ann.
“Car son nach gabhainn do chomhairle.”
Agus thilg e am botul ri taobh an rathaid mhóir agus choisich e dhachaidh. Agus bha e a cheart cho dona leis an deoch an latha sin agus a bha e an oidhche roimhe sin.
And the translation goes something like this:
There was a man here and he was quite a heavy drinker. But he said to himself that he was going to stop and promised his wife that he would.
“And the way that’ll I do it: I’ll go the pub,” he said, “and I’ll get a bottle of whisky and keep it in the house and not a drop will be taken out. That’s the very way in which I’ll fulfil my pledge.”
And that’s how it was. He was coming home carrying a bottle of whisky and he heard a thrush warbling:
“A wee drappie, Big Donald. A wee drappie, Big Donald.”
“Well, then, I think I’ll take your advice,” he said.
That’s the very thing he did.
He threw the cork from the bottle and he took a glug. He then walked on.
She warbled:
“Another drappie, another drappie, another drappie,” she sang.
“Well, I’ll take your advice, my dear,” he said.
By the time the bottle was quite empty he had put it in his pocket and walked on.
He heard a thrush on a branch warbling:
“Have more. Have more. Have more.”
He took more. He put the bottle to its end and was drinking away when he heard:
“Scoop it all. Scoop it all. Scoop it all.”
He drank every drappie that was left.
“Indeed, why wouldn’t I take your advice.”
And he threw the empty bottle away besides the highway and he walked home. He was just as bad a drinker from that day as he had been the previous night.
NB SSS 10, pp. 919920
Smeòrach / Thrush / Mavis

Tuesday 26 March 2013

A Canna Man: Angus MacDonald of Sanday

Calum Maclean first visited Canna House in 1946, at the behest of the then owner of the island, John Lorne Campbell (1906–1996), known in traditional fashion as Fear Chanaigh. The first entry for Canna that Maclean noted in his diary is dated as 1 January 1946 and a fortnight later, on 14 January, he was to meet fellow folklorist Hamish Henderson (1919–2002), also visiting Canna House for the very first time. Henderson in his tribute that he paid to Maclean sets the scene:
I had the privilege of meeting him [Maclean] at the very start of his period in Scotland … Another guest was the late Séamus Ennis, the renowned Irish uillean piper … so Calum had every excuse for reverting to unabashed Irishism. My first impression of him, curled up in a window seat and surveying the new arrival with quizzical interrogatory eyes, was of a friendly but very watchful brownie … Later that evening he regaled us with some of the Irish songs (in English) …
So foregathered together in Canna House where four influential folklorists: Campbell, Maclean, Henderson and Ennis, all of whom were at the outset of their respective careers and who would go on to make a lasting impact in various ways through their research, collecting, and publishing.
Maclean would on occasion return to Canna whether on his way back home from the Southern Hebrides to Raasay or when he was collecting folklore on the neighbouring small isles of Eigg or Muck. Maclean, at this time, was employed by the Dublin-based Irish Folklore Commission, established in 1935, which had a remit that eventually included collecting in Gaelic-speaking areas outwith Ireland itself, and was sent by James Hamilton Delargy to his native land to do exactly this.
Each time that Maclean visited Canna he usually took both the time and effort – weather dependent – to stop off at the neighbouring island of Sanday and visit the house of one of Canna’s last storytellers or seanchies. The man in question was Angus MacDonald (1865–1949), styled Aonghas Eachainn. His son Hector MacDonald (1901–1965), styled Eachainn Aonghais Eachainn or Eachann Mòr carried on the family tradition and was also an able storyteller with a few of his stories also collected by Maclean.
A short and perhaps an unusual example, here given in translation from Gaelic, should suffice in order to give a taste of the whole:
A brother of Alexander MacDonald [Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair] used to always see him [as a ghost] after he had died, and he used to go away. I knew a woman with whom he [the ghost] used to converse. The spirit of a man alive is far stronger than the spirit of a dead man.
The Alexander MacDonald mentioned in this short anecdote was, of course, a great Jacobite Gaelic poet as well as being an innovative and extraordinary talent, who, at one time, held the office of bailiff of Canna. Angus himself was full of Gaelic lore and was probably familiar with some of Alexander MacDonald’s songs and also stories about this black-haired poet from Moidart.
Angus MacDonald’s local historical knowledge of the island of his birth was particularly strong for he remembers his own father telling him of the clearances that occurred in Canna between 1821 and 1831 when the new proprietors – MacNeills from Kintyre – arrived:
The MacNeills put a terrible number of people out of the island. I believe that sixty families left when my father was a young man. The worst of it was that they wouldn’t remain in this country. Anyway they wanted them to go over [seas]. They were sent to Canada. I heard that they embarked at Tobermory. They were promised that they would be well off when they had arrived over there, but in fact they were worse off.
I heard that it was not the laird who was altogether to be blamed for sending them away at all. The father of the last MacNeill brought a farmer here; the place at that time was under crofters; that annoyed him. The crofters were then all on the Canna side, on the hill face, which was nearly all cultivated by them. The farmer who came had to shift the people off it, so that he could get the land. The land was then all cultivated.
According to his own testimony, when MacDonald was growing up on Sanday there were over a hundred people there but by the late 1940s this had been practically reduced to just the one household. Most, if not all, of MacDonald’s lore was gleaned from his own father who had such traditions from his own father. MacDonald says this of his grandfather:
My own grandfather hadn’t a word of schooling in his head, and you never saw a better man than he for any job that ever turned up any day of the year. He knew anecdotes and songs and stories.
The inhabitants of Canna were nothing if not resilient as they eked out a living in an environment that at times could be extremely harsh and unrelenting. They had to rely upon their own resourcefulness and took of advantage of nature’s bounty when the opportunity arose:
When I was young, they used to make use of seal oil. They had a special day on which they went to kill them on Heisker. That island was full of them. They used to skin them and take off the blubber. Some of it took a long time to melt, too. Seal oil is terribly good for cattle.
I saw people boiling it and refining it as well as they could, and drinking it too.
When MacNeill was here, he used to bury seals at the foot of apple trees in the garden. They made excellent fertilizer. They didn’t make any use of the flesh at all. 
All kinds of material were collected from Angus MacDonald including aspects of weather lore:
They used to predict the weather by the way in which a cat sat by the fire. When bad weather was expected then the cat would turn around and place its back to the fire.
Perhaps it may have been that Angus was something of a naturalist for Maclean took down many anecdotes concerning the local flora and fauna, including traditions about the gather of tormentil used by fishermen to mend nets and for tanning leather for shoemaking as well as snippets of lore regarding otters and badgers even though Angus MacDonald claims to have never set his eyes on the latter animal:
There are people who call the harvest moon ‘the yellow moon of the badgers’. They say that the badger itself harvest the hay and brings it home and lines their setts with it where they hibernate for the entire winter.
Such a tradition is also found in Alexander Carmichael’s great compendium of Gaelic lore entitled Carmina Gadelica (1900):
The harvest moon is variously called ‘gealach gheal an abuchaidh,’ the ripening white moon; ‘gealach fin na Feill Micheil,’ the fair moon of the Michael Feast; and ‘gealach bhuidhe nam broc,’ the yellow moon of the badgers. The badger is then in best condition, before he retires to his winter retreat. When the badger emerges in spring, he is thin and emaciated. He never comes out in winter, unless upon a rare occasion when a dry sunny day may tempt him out to air his hay bedding. The intelligence with which the badger brings out his bedding, shakes it in the sun, airs it in the wind, and carries it back again to his home, is interesting and instructive.
It seems that Maclean’s last visit to Canna took place in 1949, the very same year in which Angus MacDonald himself passed away, and so came to an end one of the island’s last storytellers.
John Lorne Campbell, Canna: The Story of a Hebridean Island (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 4th ed., 2002)
Photograph of Angus MacDonald, Courtesy of the National Trust of Scotland (Canna House Archive).

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Angus MacLellan of Loch Eynort, South Uist

Only one tradition bearer in 1965, as far is known, has ever received an MBE in recognition of his services to folklore. That person was Angus MacLellan (1869–1966), styled Aonghas Beag mac Aonghais ic Eachainn ic Dhòmhnaill ic Chaluim ic Dhòmhnaill, from Poll Torain, Loch Eynort, South Uist, the youngest son of a large family of four other boys and four daughters of Angus MacLellan, grass-keeper, and his wife, Mary, née Wilson.
In 1961, the historian and folklorist John Lorne Campbell of Canna (1906–1996) edited and published in translation Stories from South Uist, representing but a selection of MacLellan’s repertoire. Moreover, Campbell also went on to edit and publish MacLellan’s autobiography as The Furrow Behind Me: The Autobiography of a Hebridean Crofter (1962); a fascinating read for it touches upon many facets that have both an historical and a sociological significance. The original Gaelic version of the text, one of the longest to have been published in colloquial Scottish Gaelic, appeared under the title Saoghal an Treobhaiche [‘The Ploughman’s World’] in a Scandinavian journal as well as in book format in 1972. Campbell wrote that: “His stories and his memories are told with a wealth of dialogue and characterization which would do credit to a professional novelist.”
Campbell in his introduction to MacLellan’s collection of tales provides a fine portrait of the ninety-year old tradition bearer:
Aonghus Beag is a sturdy, cheerful man, with a very alert mind. He looks far younger than his ninety years and still conveys the impression of the bodily strength developed by his former livelihood, that of a ploughman on mainland farms in Perthshire, Argyll, and Dumbartonshire…He has the reputation of having been one of the most skilled sheep-shearers in South Uist…and as a storyteller and conversationalist, he never wearies.
Dr Alasdair Maclean, a resident and GP in South Uist for over thirty years, and a brother of Calum Maclean recalled that:
Angus MacLellan…was clearly jealous if interest was paid to the potential of his richly endowed sister, Mrs Marion Campbell [known as Bean Nìll]. As they both lived in the same house, that required tactful handling. I can well remember Calum’s delight in getting from Angus a splendid version of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, as well as many other priceless tales, but I often wonder if the old lady took to her grave many gems which he might otherwise have unlocked. Her daughter Mrs Kate MacDonald (Bean Eairdsidh) produced for him a phenomenal number of songs…
The Cattle-Raid of Colley is far too convoluted to give in full but the gist of the story may given that has Cuchulainn, a famous Celtic hero, as one of the main protagonists. Having killed a guard-dog he had to take its place instead for a period of seven years. Meanwhile his father died, and when his seven years were up, he took over the farm which had a fairy bull named Donn Ghuaillean which everyone fought over. Cuchullain did not wish for the bull to be stolen but others were only too willing to try and so a contemporary of Cuchullain, Fear Diag Daimhein, swore an oath to Cuchullain’s rivals that he would get the fairy bull. The ensuing fight ended with Diag Mac Daimhein dead and Cuchulainn dying but who still managed to kill a dog which was drinking blood – his last feat had to be same as first – and then he died, leaving Donn Ghuailleann to whoever claimed it.
It is altogether remarkable that a story should have survived at all into the twentieth century and one which is fairly faithful to the manuscript versions from whence it probably entered into the oral tradition of Uist via the MacVuirichs, the hereditary bards to the Clanranalds. The learned tradition of Gaelic culture as represented by these outstanding poets and historians had not a little influence upon folklore that was later recovered by various collectors during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: 
Last summer [1959] a variant of the Táin Bó Cúailnge was recorded from Angus MacLellan of Frobost, South Uist, the tale of Cu Chulainn that took shape in the 7th century or probably earlier and that was the subject of study by every great name in the Celtic scholarship of Europe from Windisch and Thurneysen onwards.
Maclean who later published the transcribed text in 1959 along with a translation and notes gives the following brief description of the tradition bearer telling the story:
On the 11th of June [1959] I saw Angus MacLellan of Frobost  uncover his head in honour of Cu Chullain and then proceed to tell the heroic saga of Cu Chullain’s first feat, his exploits to take forcible possession of the Donn Ghuailleann, and his death after he had slain Fear Diad Mac Deafain.
In his notes that accompany this ancient tale, Maclean records the background details of how it entered MacLellan’s repertoire:
Angus heard the story about 70 years ago from the late Donald MacDonald of Peninerine, Dòmhnall mac Dhonnchaidh, a stonemason who, it appears, built the MacLellan family house in Loch Eynort…Donald was the father of the late Duncan MacDonald, a storyteller…Donald MacDonald died, if I remember rightly, in the early twenties. He belonged to a line of noted storytellers and poets to the MacDonalds of Skye, who had lands in North Uists…
Given that another South Uist storyteller called Duncan MacDonald was reckoned by Maclean to have been the most skilful storyteller that he had ever met in either Scotland or Ireland, it is remarkable that this tale, one of the most prestigious stories to be in any storyteller’s repertoires, was not known to him, despite the very fact that MacLellan heard it from Duncan’s father himself:
Strangely enough, the Donn Ghuaillean story did not go further in the family than Donald himself, for his son, Duncan, did not have it, although he inherited a great deal of his father’s store. If the story came down directly in the family—although that cannot be ascertained now—it came, we can assume, from North Uist.
MacLellan’s repertoire, however, came from a variety of sources, numbering a good dozen or more, such as another outstanding South Uist storyteller:
Alasdair MacIntyre [Alasdair Mòr mac Iain Dheirg] was a shepherd and lived in a remote place to the east side of Ben More. It was from him that old Angus MacLellan of Frobost learned most of his tales, and old Alasdair used to walk from the back of Ben More to Ormiclate to record tales for the late Dr Alasdair Carmichael over 70 years ago…
Such was the storytelling prowess of both Alasdair MacIntyre and MacLellan’s father, also called Angus, that they could hold an audience captive for many a long hour:
Old Alasdair and Angus MacLellan’s father, Aonghas mac Eachainn, were close friends. One day Alasdair Mòr called at the MacLellan home on his way to Lochboisdale. “No one went to bed in their house that night. They all remained by the fire as the two old men went on storytelling,” said Donald [MacIntyre from Loch Eynort]
Over many years Campbell recorded, initially at the behest of Calum Maclean, many of MacLellan’s stories and reminiscences and, afterwards, was prompted to say something of his own lifestory. Of over one hundred and thirty items recorded from MacLellan’s recitation, forty-two were prepared for publication as well as his autobiography, recently reprinted. The range of material in MacLellan’s repertoire is representative of earlier collections such as those made by the collectors employed by John Francis Campbell during the nineteenth century.
At the grand old age of ninety-seven MacLellan died unmarried at Frobost, South Uist, on 19 March 1966, and was buried at Hanlainn on that island.
Angus MacLellan, The Furrow Behind Me and Stories from South Uist, both ed. by John Lorne Campbell (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1997)
Angus MacLellan, c. early 1960s by Margaret Fay Shaw. Courtesy of Canna House Archive

Friday 15 March 2013

Father John MacMillan of Barra

If it was not for one of the most catchy 2/4 marches ever to have been composed for the pipes then it is rather doubtful that Father John MacMillan of Barra, styled Maighstir Iain Dhonnchaidh, would be so well remembered. Duncan Johnstone, a famous piper and nephew of Father John, himself told the tune’s background to Neil Angus MacDonald, a fellow piper and schoolmaster from Eoligarry in Barra. Johnstone’s mother stayed in Glasgow and her next door neighbour was Norman MacDonald from Broadford in Skye, the piper who composed this well-known march. It so happened that MacMillan was down in Glasgow visiting Duncan Johnstone’s mother and MacDonald, who was a regular visitor, called in. MacDonald had just composed the tune and played it for Father John who was so taken by it that MacDonald decided to name the tune in his honour.
Born at Craigston, in the northern part of Barra, in 1880, MacMillan was admitted to Blairs College, near Aberdeen, in 1894 and spent the next five years there training for the priesthood. From there he proceeded to Issy and St Sulpice and was ordained by Bishop George Smith in the pro-Cathedral at Oban in 1903. After a period as an assistant at Oban, he was appointed to the charge of Eigg and the Small Isles, and later, in 1908, was appointed to Benbecula.
During the period of his missionary work in that island the people regarded him with deep affection. He had a special interest in every member of his flock. Always travelling on foot he visited every family, and in later years the memory of his tall stately figure was often recalled. It was there he had spent the most fruitful years of his life.
Following the First World War, a great many families from the Southern Hebrides emigrated to Canada on the Marloch in 1923 and were settled at Red Deer in the province of Alberta. MacMillan volunteered to emigrate along with them and remained in Canada for two years ministering to their spiritual needs. “There,” according to Compton Mackenzie, “he had a great fight with the Canadian authorities, who he felt had not kept their side of the bargain and were inflicting unnecessary hardship upon the immigrants. In the end … they managed to get rid of a ‘turbulent’ priest.”
On his return he was placed in charge of Ballachuilish, but after a few years he was then appointed to Northbay, Barra, and later on, in 1926, to his native Craigston, from which charge he retired through ill-health in 1943. MacMillan was remembered for his congenial personality and his almost childlike disposition:
His house was open to all visitors, and there were many who came from near and far. Year after year the young and old, of various creeds and callings, sought him in his island home. From him they learned much. None ever left his presence without feeling in some measure the benefit of converse with him. He had a keen sense of humour; his laughter was infectious. Rarely or never was there a biting word.
At the Mod in Inverness, MacMillan befriended the famous writer Sir Compton Mackenzie (1883–1972), perhaps best remembered today for his novel Whisky Galore, subsequently made into a critically acclaimed Ealing comedy. In 1933 Mackenzie moved to Barra and eventually set up home at Suidheachan in Eoligarry just beside the airport on Tràigh Mhòr. Over the years both men would enjoy each other’s company. Mackenzie based the character of Fr James Macalister who appears in Keep the Home Guard Turning (1943) and Whisky Galore (1947) on MacMillan. The Barra priest was very proud to have a fictionalised version of himself to appear in print.
Of the many people who visited him one person in particular was the folklorist Calum Maclean who took a lively interest in the priest who was known for his store of oral traditions. In January 1947 Maclean visited MacMillan then living in retirement in Allasdale and recorded a great deal of songs from his recitation. On another occasion in the company of Séamus Ennis (1919–1982), a renowned musicologist and expert uillean piper, Maclean visited MacMillan who was greatly pleased by the virtuosity of the Irishman’s performance. Maclean later recalled his visit to MacMillan in the following words:
I did return again to Barra, for one rarely fails to do that. I came at the request of Father John MacMillan … He is now almost seventy, but he still sings well and is also a veritable mine of traditional lore. It was a short visit, but in one day alone I recorded over thirty songs from Father MacMillan. One was a very beautiful song addressed to Prince Charlie, a song which tradition ascribes to Flora MacDonald. Many of Father MacMillan’s songs are now known to him alone. He heard them in Barra, Uist, Benbecula, and in Eigg over forty years ago from people who have longs since returned slowly to dust. Barra has many people of whom it can feel justly proud. Father John MacMillan is certainly one of them.
Due to his great interest in his own native culture, MacMillan was not slow in lending his hand to support the various organisations that were founded in order to stem the decline of the Gaelic language and heritage:
He took a lively interest in all movements organised for the preservation of Gaelic or of Gaelic lore. He was a bard of no mean repute, and some of his compositions continue to be sung wherever Gaels foregather the world over.
MacMillan composed a eulogy to Fr William MacKenzie and perhaps his most famous song is Fàilte do Bharraigh (‘Welcome to Barra’). He also wrote Mo Shoraidh le Eige (My Farewell to Eigg) and Seòlaidh Mise A-null gu Dùthaich Chaomh Mo Rùin (‘I’ll Sail Over to the Country of My Love’), another song in praise of Barra that was composed to mark his return from his sojourn in Canada. The love for the island of his birth is perhaps best seen in a piece that he composed during his autumnal years where MacMillan draws inspiration from the scenery of Barra’s western coastline in sight of his last resting place:           

                                When I draw my very last breath
                                    And throw off this mortal coil,
                                    Gathered among those who are no longer
                                    I will gain the far shore of virtues. 
Finally succumbing to a series of heart-attacks in 1951, MacMillan passed away in his seventy-second year, and nearly fifty years of his priesthood. Such was the affection and esteem that he held among the islanders that twelve hundred mourners attended his funeral. They came from the neighbouring islands of Eriskay, South Uist and Benbecula, and they took part in the procession led by Neil Angus MacDonald and five other pipers which wended its way through the townships of Craigston and Borve to St Brendan’s churchyard on the outer fringe of the western shore of his native island where he was laid to rest beside his ‘spiritual father’ the Rev. William MacKenzie.
Compton Mackenzie was much grieved by his passing and, though he could not attend the funeral because of work commitments, he wrote a fitting inscription for his dear friend:
Here rest all that is mortal of John MacMillan who for many years was the parish priest of Craigston. He loved alike the language of his forefathers and the conversation of his fellowmen. Out of the abundance or his vitality he gave so much to life. Priest, poet, and humanist, of all the sons of Barra none was better loved. He was born on May 11th 1880 and died on June 1st 1951. He lies at last where he wished to lie beside the ocean, and may Almighty God grant him eternal peace.
Calum I. Maclean, ‘In Search of Folklore in the Western Isles’, Scotland’s S.M.T. Magazine, vol. 40, no. 6 (1947), pp. 40–44
Fr John MacMillan of Barra, c. 1940s

Saturday 9 March 2013

The Blind Piper: Lachlan Bàn MacCormick of Benbecula

In Benbecula, where Calum Maclean had spent so many years collecting folklore, a ceilidh that he attended left an emotional and lasting impression upon the young collector:
No mention of the tradition-bearers of Benbecula would be complete, if we did not include the grand old gentleman, the blind piper Lachlan Bàn MacCormick. As well as several traditional pipe-tunes, he recorded two tales, and has more to tell. My most moving experience as a folklore collector was to have recorded from him. He is 92 years of age and his eyes have been completely sightless for the past eight years.
In his diary Maclean recorded the ceilidh in some detail for not only was such work part of his duties as a professionally trained ethnologist but even more so because it was such a great social occasion and one which he would later recollect with pleasure.
Lachlan Bàn MacCormick (1859–1951) was a native of Creagorry, Benbecula, and later joined the 2nd (later 3rd) Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders in 1889 when he was thirty years of age. He was called Lachie Bàn due to his very fair hair and complexion. While in the Camerons, he reached the rank of Pipe-Sergeant and would later serve in the Lovat Scouts. It is likely that after his demobilisation he returned to Benbecula and settled down to life as a crofter. In his day he was numbered as one of the best pipers in the Hebridean scene and was a competition prize winner as well as being a highly regarded instructor. A composer of merit, some of his tunes are still to this day part of the piping repertoire such as the catchy strathspey The South Uist Golf Club. MacCormick on more than one occasion would also take to the bench and, when not competing himself, would judge his fellow pipers in light as well as the classical music of the pipes at the games in South Uist and probably elsewhere.
On 28 November 1949 Maclean wrote an account of his visit in his fieldwork diary. It may added in passing MacCormick composed a reel for Calum Maclean to which the recipient of this honour was deeply moved and delighted by such a generous gesture.
When we arrived we found a full house as all the neighbours were in. Lachlan Bàn is an uncle of Catriona, Peter MacAlasdair’s wife, who also visited the house tonight. Lachlan Bàn is 91 years of age and was also famed as a piper. He used to pipe at weddings and funerals. He was also a piper in the Militia and rose to the rank of Pipe-Major. He learnt by ear and could compose his own tunes. Lachlan had always been short-sighted and he was grey-haired from a young age. He has now been blind for more than eight years. He sometimes recognises voices but mainly he had to ask who was speaking to him. He still has good hearing. He was very familiar with William MacLean, a famous piper who was in Creagorry and it pleased him greatly to hear that I was related to him.
Pipe-Major Willie MacLean (1876–1957), nick-named Blowhard, mentioned here had also been a fellow Cameron Highlander and had at one time owned the Creagorry Inn. A noted piper and composer of the reel Creagorry Blend, MacLean could trace his piping lineage back to the MacCrimmons, hereditary pipers to the MacLeods of Dunvegan, through his instructor at Catlodge, Malcolm MacPherson, styled Calum Pìobaire. Maclean then goes on to give further details of the ceilidh and how MacCormick played the pipes to the joy of the audience who were present in his house: 
He played on the pipes and I could see how much this pleased Lachlan Bàn. Lachlan then played as he sat on a bench with his back to the window and his fingering was a good as it ever was. If it were not for his blindness he would still be an excellent piper. He looks as if he were only 60 years of age although he was 91. He played the tunes far quicker than pipers do today. He knew that I had the Ediphone recording device and that he was being recorded playing the tunes. He played an old tune that he had heard in the army, two tunes he composed himself, and another composed by his son, Allan, who died around 1930. Lachlan Bàn heard his recording replayed on the Ediphone and he very much enjoyed this.
Some two months were to pass when Maclean accompanied by Donald MacPhee revisited MacCormick, on 19 January 1950, to find him in not such a good mood but as soon as MacPhee engaged him in conversation about his old Militia days then Lachlan soon perked up. Lachlan Bàn was then handed a chanter and he managed to play two tunes, one composed for the south ford and another called ‘Salute the King’. Although they were recorded they were difficult to make out. Maclean noted that MacCormick might well be past his best in order to take down his tunes and regretted not having got hold of him earlier.
Of only the five stories which Maclean managed to take down from MacCormick’s recitation, two of them concerned fairy lore both of which were recorded on this particular visit. A summary may be given of one of these tales which were once common stock among storytellers. MacCormick’s mother had heard the it from James MacDonald who told the tale in the presence of priest called Maighstir Dòmhnall (Father Donald):
He said that fairies still existed and they used to wait until Michaelmas until the corn was ripe when they would then harvest and make ready to take to the mill. They used to bake sruan, special commemorative cakes. Two neighbours on their way over to the mill heard music emanating from the fairy hillock. One of the men entered while the other stayed behind. For a year there was no sign of the man who went into the hillock and they thought he was dead by now. The year after at the very same time the other man was passing the hillock and saw a doorway open. Before entering the man placed a knife in the doorway and inside he saw his companion dancing with a sack still on his back. The man did not wish to leave so that the other man had to drag him out. The man thought that he had only been in the hill for a minute. The other man told him he had been in for a year and his relations thought that they would never see him again. Off home he went still carrying the sack from the year before.
Maclean remarked that he thought MacCormick as a good a storyteller as he was a piper. Many old tunes as well as his own compositions were faithfully taken down on the Ediphone and perhaps remain to this day at the National Folklore Collection in Dublin and which have probably not been heard since time they were first recorded.
Although having only been in the company of Lachlan Bàn on two occasions, such impressions left a remarkable touchstone in Maclean’s memory for he had never been so moved by any other tradition bearer. This by itself is even more remarkable given that Maclean had already met many tradition bearers before his introduction to Lachlan Bàn, including three others from Benbecula, South Uist and Barra respectively who he reckoned to be outstanding exponents of oral tradition.
Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
Photographic Postcard of Lachlan Bàn MacCormick, Beinn na Coraraidh, South Uist, c. 1920s.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

Fisherman and Teller of Tales: James MacKinnon of Northbay

In 1946, Calum I. Maclean (1915–1960) made his first ever trip to the Western Isles, and more specifically to the isle of Barra near to the southern tip of this archipelago. Maclean wrote that “I knew not one living soul in Barra: nor in any of the Outer Hebrides for that matter.”
Nevertheless, within a few weeks of getting to know the Barra people, Maclean finally met a storyteller from whom he had heard about from his friend and mentor John Lorne Campbell. Some eight years previously Campbell had included one of his stories in his book Sia Sgialachdan [‘Six Stories’]. Northbay, on the island’s north-eastern shore, marks the place in which their first meeting took place. The man in question James MacKinnon (1866–1957), styled Seumas Iain Ghunnairigh, had been a fisherman all his working days and in his semi-retirement turned to shoemaking to earn a living.
“For any folklore collector,” Maclean later wrote, “the crucial time is when contact is first made with the tradition bearer. To Seumas MacKinnon I was a complete stranger, and much depended on the outcome of our first meeting. Every folklore collector must be prepared to efface himself and approach even the most humble tradition bearer with the deference due to the high and exalted.”
Maclean true to his own words did just that and when he spoke to Seumas in Gaelic, the old man, then aged eighty received him warmly. “I noticed that he was very tall,” wrote Maclean. “His face was weather-beaten and his features were beautifully chiselled. He wore the blue-peaked cap of fishermen and blue dungarees. The life of eighty years had been spent as much on sea as on land. At eighty he was still a very handsome old man. He was the first practised storyteller I had heard in Scotland. His diction was crisp, concise and clear. Every sentence was short and perfectly balanced. His style was that of the traditional Gaelic storyteller. His voice was beautifully clear and pleasing. He stamped his own personality on every story he told, and his lively sense of humour enhanced his storytelling considerably. His aim was to delight and entertain, and he certainly did both.”
Considering that Maclean was later to record other storytellers, it is rather amazing to think that it had taken him so long to find one in Scotland. But he did have an excuse as he had, after all, been in Ireland throughout the war period and given that storytellers of such calibre were more or less confined to the Western Isles, a place he had only recently visited, it is perhaps not as surprising as it would first seem.
Although having never attended school nor being able to read or write and having only a smattering of English did not stop MacKinnon from having a prodigious memory. Some sixty years previously MacKinnon had learnt many tales from an old-bedridden man named Roderick MacDonald, who lived in a black house in Earsary, and prompted by Maclean a great deal of them came flooding back. As a young man MacKinnon along with a crowd of boys would visit old Roderick every winter evening for a ceilidh and as the old man lay in his mattress beside the hearth in the middle of the floor he would recite these stories to an entranced and appreciative audience. “Lift me up now, dear and beloved ones,” the old man would say to the young men. When propped up in a comfortable position, the old man told tales and continued until it was time for the visitors to depart. Recollecting such evenings of storytelling, MacKinnon stated that: “There is nothing like that today. Today there is only Death.” Maclean noted that what he meant, of course, was that the old order was passing.
From this reciter MacKinnon learnt his stock and trade of storytelling as Maclean recollects: “When we had conversed for an hour or so, he began to narrate his first tale. He had not continued long when I realised that he had mastered the art to perfection. Every sentence, every phrase was balanced. He was never at a loss for a word, and never lost the thread of his story. The first story of his was an international folktale. It was the tale of the three noble acts. A lady, who had promised her virginity to a farmer, was later wooed and won by a nobleman. On her bridal night the lady wept when she remembered her promise to the farmer. Her husband escorted her to the farmer’s house so that she could fulfil her promise. The farmer nobly declined her offer and told her to return to her husband. One her way home she fell in with a party of thieves. The leader of the party, on hearing her story, sent her home in safety. The three men acted nobly.
Before relating the story, Maclean and MacKinnon “had sat and spoke for some time. Eventually I told him I had come to Barra to look for old stories. “Oh!” said he, “it is a long time since I told a story. People have no use for storytelling now.”
According to Maclean, MacKinnon’s repertoire contained a great number of such tales:
Seumas MacKinnon could be most amusing and entertaining at times. He had a large number of tales of a distinctly Rabelaisian character. These he told sometimes to a mixed audience. But such could be done in Barra. The late Thomas MacDonagh wrote that while the people of Gaelic Ireland were sometimes coarse in speech, they were always impeccably proper in conduct. The same is true of the people of Barra.
From MacKinnon forty folktales, some taking almost an hour to tell, were recorded by Maclean and later transcribed. MacKinnon knew their intrinsic value and could appreciate the object of reciting the tales and having a written record made of them. This did not only make Maclean’s task an easier one but a far more enjoyable one:
It was always an easy matter to induce him to tell his stories. Today, even in Barra, storytelling has ceased to be the popular form of entertainment it used to be. Newspapers, radio, and films have superseded the storyteller. In an earlier generation Seumas MacKinnon and his kind were more appreciated than they are today. I feel very proud of the help and friendship of Seumas MacKinnon.
MacKinnon also told Maclean about his fishing days when, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the inlets of the west coast of Skye still contained plenty of herring. Smacks from all over would foregather there and after nightfall when the nets had been set the custom was for the fishermen to visit each others’ boats. MacKinnon tells of the time when listening to another Barra storyteller:
They were all below deck in the storyteller’s smack. It was early of a winter’s evening that he commenced storytelling. All night long he continued. The listeners were oblivious at everything except the story that was being narrated. All of a sudden they heard a series of loud bangs on the deck above them. They looked up and dawn was beginning to break. Their smack had dragged its anchors and was drifting perilously near a rocky shore. The crew of a drifter which had come alongside were throwing lumps of coal on to the deck of the fishing smack to warn the men below that danger was imminent.
Maclean spent some five months recording but only a little of his repertoire for it was nowhere near to being exhausted. The last time Maclean saw MacKinnon was when he visited him in March 1956, “resting after a hard day’s work planting potatoes.” With MacKinnon’s passing the following year, Barra had lost one of its last remaining traditional storytellers.

Calum I. Maclean, The Highlands (Inbhir Nis: Club Leabhar, 1975)
────, Hebridean Traditions’, Gwerin: Journal of Folk Life, vol. 1, no. 1 (1956), pp. 21–33
James MacKinnon. Courtesy of of the National Folklore Collection / Cnuasach Bhéaloideas Éireann UCD